DARPA has announced a new program designed to harness expertise from smaller sources of innovation, routinely overlooked by large agencies. Looking to small businesses and individuals, the agency hopes to undertake a series of cost-effective projects that will deliver new robotics capabilities to warfighters, helping to keep them ahead of the technological curve.

DARPA has some pretty big programs in the works, developing everything from self-steering bullets to lighter, more agile alternatives to conventional tanks. But the agency believes it spends too long working on what program manager Mark Micire calls "three to four-year solutions for six-month problems."

The Robotics Fast Track (RFT) effort aims to provide more streamlined avenues of innovation, funding 6 to 12-month projects with an average cost of just US$150,000. To get things moving, the agency has recruited the non-profit Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) to help out. The foundation focuses on software development and works to encourage robotics research and development in the small-scale community.

So what exactly is the agency looking for in the proposals? Applicants are being encouraged to focus on a number of key areas, including ideas that work with freely available, off-the-shelf products, technologies that improve speed, agility and range of robotic platforms, and ways of advancing robotic sensing, planning, perception and communication skills.

The agency is also on the lookout for technologies that could apply to different operational domains (such as air and ground deployments), as well as those that could improve surveillance, reconnaissance and situational awareness. Lastly, entrants are being encouraged to put forward any projects relating to non-military security forces, such as police forces and firefighters.

So, it's fair to say that DARPA is casting a pretty wide net with what it's looking for with the RFT program, and it's likely we'll see some pretty interesting technologies emerge from it. Overall, the agency seems pretty positive about the whole endeavor.

"Lots of smart people have good ideas for advancing the state of the art, but aren't ready to invest the time and effort necessary to navigate the government's traditional contracting mechanisms," says Brian Gerkey, CEO and founder of OSRF. "Through RFT, we aim to support these people, explore their ideas and change the landscape of robotics at a pace that wasn't previously possible."

Source: DARPA